Media's Iraq Mistakes Repeated
Unfortunately, 14 years after the beginning of the Iraq war, many of the same patterns of war-mongering traditional media coverage can be found in reporting about last Thursday’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase.
In Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, I lay out a strong indictment against “war journalism” practiced in the months before the Iraq war. Specifically, I wrote that media in 2003 was pro-war, and ignored anti-war voices; featured hyped, false stories that justified the administration’s case for intervention; depended almost entirely on official sources, giving the public a narrow, distorted view of the conflict; and waved the flag instead of critically analyzing the case for war.
While each of these elements has been present in the missile strike coverage, let’s concentrate on two—the lack of anti-intervention voices; and waving the flag.
The coverage, as anyone who watched cable TV during the last week can testify, was decidedly pro-missile strike, and largely ignored voices calling for non-violent options. An examination of broadcast news transcripts from April 8-10, using the search term “Syria Trump missiles,” shows there has been little discussion of peace and non-violent responses to Assad’s gas attack. Of the search’s 989 hits on Lexis-Nexis, only 76 mentioned peace negotiations (7.7%) and 31 peace talks (3%). A total of 31 mentioned “compromise,” “peace agreement,” “peace deal,” “truce,” and “reconciliation” combined (3%). Only 34 of the 989 broadcast stories mentioned “settlement” (3.4%).
The study shows that not only are peaceful options being ignored, so, too are those advocating peace and non-violence. The military terms “general,” “colonel,” and “lieutenant” were mentioned in 240 of the 989 stories, mostly to identify expert talking heads. So in about one in four reports, experts presented were military or ex-military. Contrast this to the almost complete lack of peace-promoting voices on-air. There were only a combined 17 hits for “peace activist,” “peacebuilder,” “peace negotiator,” and “mediator” (appearing in 1.7% of the total number of stories broadcast). There were 40 hits for “diplomat” (4%). Even if you add up all the peace voices, it totals less than 6% of all stories—about four times less than the military voices.
The military-heavy coverage is consistent with the flag-waving (or as some call it, cheerleading) evident over the airwaves the previous four days. On April 7, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, “The cruise missiles struck, and many in the mainstream media fawned.” She cited examples from the New York Times (“On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first,”); CNN (“’I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night,’ Fareed Zakaria declared”); and MSNBC (Brian Williams “seemed mesmerized by the images of the strikes provided by the Pentagon. He used the word ‘beautiful’ three times and alluded to a Leonard Cohen lyric — ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons’.”) (http://tinyurl.com/mkghfmv)
Indeed, the coverage, according to the same Lexis-Nexis study, skewed pro-missile strike. Of the 989 total hits, 33 used the term “justified” (vs. 4 “unjustified”); 43 “correct” (1 “incorrect”); 13 “wise” (1 “unwise”); 21 “intelligent” and “prudent” combined (14 “foolish”). There were 43 hits under “success” and 45 under “failure,” a balance that perhaps reflects on-air discussions about whether the attack was a success or a failure.
Why the cheerleading, flag-waving coverage? What media critic Paul Waldman said about Iraq coverage in 2013 is still true today. “When there's a war in the offing, the flags are waving and dissenters are being called treasonous, the media's courage tends to slip away. Which is particularly regrettable, since the time when the government is pressing for war should be the time when (media) are more aggressive than ever, exploring every possibility and asking every question, over and over again if need be. (Paul Waldman, “Duped on War, Has Press Learned?,” CNN, 2013, March 19, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/waldman-media-iraq/.)
It’s distressing that the press seems to have learned so little since the run up to the Iraq war. The news media must practice peace journalism by broadening, deepening, and balancing its coverage. Reporting shouldn’t skew either pro-missile strike or pro-peace, but must present the public a comprehensive view of all alternatives. Instead, the public is getting the same one-sided flag waving that preceded the disastrous intervention in Iraq.